Don’t think that this will be over soon. This is fundamentally a war of patience and a test of our endurance,” 17-year-old Joshua Wong, student leader of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, tweeted on Thursday. For the past several weeks, the protesters have been putting on a clinic in organized, disciplined civil resistance: Tens of thousands of activists continue to throng the downtown streets and thoroughfares, demanding the resignation of Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying and threatening to occupy government buildings. Occupy Central, student coalitions, and other opposition groups have called for mass strikes while insisting that they will not back down until their ultimate goal of universal suffrage is achieved. Still, as momentum has slowed, the lingering question is, what next?
Beijing probably expects to wage (and win) a war of attrition against this civilian uprising. The main challenge now for the Hong Kong democracy movement is to maintain pressure while withstanding inevitable repression and finding ways to erode Beijing’s pillars of local support. It needs to find the right balance of disruption and engagement, to work inside and outside of traditional political and legal institutions, and to prepare for a multi-year struggle.
In the face of a Goliath as formidable as the Chinese state, though, do the polite and savvy oppositionists of Hong Kong really have any hope of succeeding? My Why Civil Resistance Works co-author, Erica Chenoweth, and I found that similar nonviolent campaigns from around the world that challenged incumbent regimes from 1900-2006 succeeded about 53 percent of the time. During that same time period, nonviolent campaigns were more likely than armed ones to be followed by democracy within a decade — even when the nonviolent campaigns failed. This highlights the importance of creating and sustaining civic space as a key factor in bringing about democracy.